Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets' first draft choice

starting to hit his stride: Glimpses of greatness

Scheifele looking more and more like he belongs

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The impatient see the plays and the beginning of some points and tap their feet, wanting more of all of that and wanting it now.

Those happy to let Winnipeg Jets rookie Mark Scheifele progress at a natural pace see the same things -- his two goals and four assists in the last nine games as well as more time with the puck on his stick -- and just half-raise an eyebrow.

The lock looks like it's coming off the box of skill for the 20-year-old centre, of whom much is expected.

"I definitely see progress, especially in his 200-foot game," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said recently. "As a centre, it's a lot to take on as a rookie, the responsibility in your own zone and playing against bigger, stronger opponents. It's not an easy task, but I think he's done a great job of being reliable.

"He's such a high-end, skilled guy, but for him it's much more focus on the simple things and letting his skill take care of itself."

After the adrenaline of a goal and assist in his first two games of the season, the seventh overall pick of the 2011 draft went through an awfully quiet 22 games with just three assists.

"The league isn't about scoring goals," Scheifele said. "It's about playing your best to help the team win. That's how I have to build my game. You can't make mistakes here or you get burned. I have to... be on the right side of the puck, not floating around and hoping for the best."

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The floating around, that's not been part of Scheifele's efforts as he has tried to earn the trust of both his coach and his teammates.

It hasn't been a conscious effort to chuck his offence, more that he can't have it in a meaningful way without developing the right habits on the defensive side, especially in his own end.

The signs that some comfort, some confidence in that area is taking hold are things like his sizzler of a shot to beat Marty Brodeur in New Jersey two weeks ago, his overtime winner in Tampa last Saturday, and more evidence of his playmaking on Thursday night against Colorado.

"That's exactly it, doing the simple things over and over and being reliable defensively and letting offence take over when it takes over, not worrying about it or stressing over the points not coming," Scheifele said this week. "Just focus on the defensive end and wait for the opportunity to present itself, then capitalize on it."

He has been steadfast in answering this question numerous times each week -- that his confidence has not waned, it has been constant.

But his comfort level on NHL ice, that is starting to rise.

"I think every game it's been getting better," Scheifele said. "I don't think it's a certain game or a certain time, it's just every game I feel more comfortable. Every game I learn new and more things. I just have to continue with that attitude of learning something every day and continuing to grow."

'He's such a high-end, skilled guy, but for him it's much more focus on the simple things...'

-- Jets captain Andrew Ladd, on Scheifele

Friday, asked to comment on Scheifele's learning curve, Jets coach Claude Noel called the rookie a sponge.

"He wants to learn," Noel said. "He likes playing hockey.

"He's doing well. He's progressing well. I don't view it in the number of stats, those things. I think he's doing well. I think when Mark uses his speed, his skill really becomes evident.

"In (Thursday's) game you would have seen that. The best way to put it with Mark is he knows his way around the ice and he's very clever. You can see that.

"But it's attached to speed. He's going to be a very good player. When you watch him, you can see that."

Of course, it's not all a yellow-brick road to Oz.

The common complaint about Scheifele is he's not strong enough, that he gets knocked off his feet too much.

"He's getting knocked off his feet a fair bit, but that's just physical maturity, no disrespect to him," Noel said. "That will eventually come. You see a lot of good things in his game. It's encouraging. It gets me excited when I watch him play like that."

His teammates seem to know it, as does his coach -- Scheifele's all-in on his NHL dream.

"I think he's learning, he's engaged and he wants to get better and that's all you can ask for," Ladd said.

The rookie, so far, has been openly sponge-like.

"Andrew Ladd, he's been a huge mentor for me," Scheifele said. "It's not like he's always talking to me, but he's giving me the advice and other stuff. He's probably No. 1 there, but Blake Wheeler's helped me a lot, too. He's been a guy that's always there, even if I'm feeling down about a play.

"I appreciate it a lot, what they've done for me."

His housemate in the suburbs, centre James Wright, says humility may be one of Scheifele's best qualities.

"I think all of our younger guys are trying to find our way, but he's an awesome kid, very nice, very down to earth," Wright said. "He doesn't let his success go to his head. He's very easy to room with. I can't say enough good things about him.

"He loves the game, he really does. He can't get enough hockey. Sometimes I'd rather watch the football game when he's got the TV."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 C2

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